Planning Commission to hear appeal Friday; ECM tours site; environmentalists threaten lawsuit
By Miriam Raftery
December 10,2015 (Alpine)—An appeal filed yesterday on behalf of three environmental groups and neighbors of Covert Canyon will be heard by the County Planning Commission tomorrow at 9 a.m. If the appeal is denied, a letter signed by appellants’ attorney Marco Gonzalez states, “the Environmental groups and Appellants intend to file suit and seek injunctive relief before the matter is heard by the Board of Supervisors.”
In addition to Clark and Robin Williams, the closest neighbors, Gonzalez' letter states he is representing the Cleveland National Forest Foundation, Save Our Forests and Ranchlands, and Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation.
A staff report recommends denying the appeal and upholding the Planning Director’s decision to reclassify the use of the property as law enforcement.
Yesterday, East County Magazine visited Covert Canyon for a tour and exclusive interview with owner Marc Halcon, who also owns the American Shooting Center in Kearny Mesa. Halcon says he has been the target of misinformation and wants to set the record straight. We also spoke with Gonzalez, regarding contentions by opponents, who claim they have been targeted for harassment and sthur that the county’s actions set a disturbing precedent.
Both sides have taken aim at each other in a battle that has broad implications for private property rights, environmental protection, and the need for enhanced training of first responders in an era when domestic terrorism looms as an increasing threat.
The current controversy
The County Planning Director signed a stipulated enforcement agreement that allows Covert Canyon to resume firearms training for military, law enforcement and governmental groups on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.—activities previously shut down by the County at the site pending application for a Major Use Permit. Recreational shooting would also be allowed on weekends.
A CBS news video shows what the noise sounds like from a group of machine gun shooters at the site. At that time, the county sent Channel 8 news a statement which read in part, “Our preliminary review of this video gives us concern that this incident is a Zoning Ordinance Violation. It appears to be paramilitary training, which would necessitate a Major Use Permit.”
The Planning Director contends that these activities are allowable under the “law enforcement services” definition in the County Zoning Ordinance. Supporters say such training is needed and that adequate facilities are not available elsewhere. Halcon says he is making major changes to improve fire safety and protect the environment, citing several examples.
But opponents have filed an appeal claiming the approval constitutes an abuse of power without first conducting California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review. They contend fire improvements are not enough.
They also contend that the county’s expanded definition of law enforcement opens the door to firearms or military-type training on rural properties across the region.
The Williams’ claim they fear driving through a shooting range to get home, have been targeted for harassment and deprived of peaceful enjoyment of their property, while Halcon claims that he has been victimized by false claims made by the Williams.
A long, deeply rutted dirt road through federal forest land leads up to the remote and aptly named Covert Canyon site in Japatul Valley south of Alpine. The road continues past a locked gate, providing the only access to neighbors Clark and Robin Williams’ home on a hill on the opposite side of the valley.
The site is surrounded by Cleveland National Forest. We observed ponds, some dry, some with water, as well as groves of mature oak trees covering much of the property. A home, small office and a few storage sheds appeared to be the only structures.
A long firing range runs through the heart of the property. Two other firing ranges banked by 12-foot-high berms are at one end of the site, one abutting forest land behind. At the opposite end, the property drops off into a valley where in wet years, a waterfall cascades downward. A blue jay flitted past and a woodpecker alit in a tree during our tour; we also observed a few ducks on a pond.
At the firing range farthest from the Williams’ home, a shooter with a handgun was taking target practice. It was loud enough to need earphones at the range, though back at the property line near the Williams home the shots were audible, but far from deafening. This was just one shooter with small arms, however. Multiple shooters or large-caliber guns would be considerably louder.
Halcon says he has had a noise study done that showed compliance with the county’s 50 decibel limit. But is a frequent barrage of multiple gunshots from military or assault-type weapons, as envisioned, compatible with rural living? That’s a key question in the controversy. Other key concerns include fire risk and environmental impacts.
Halcon (photo, right), who did anti-terrorist force protection for the Navy for seven years, says he bought the property in 2005 with the intent to offer firearms training both for recreational purposes (legal if no money is exchanged) and for commercial purposes. He says the County told him to get a permit from the Sheriff but eventually concluded that “doesn’t exist.” His project amounted to a “square peg in a round hole” that staff wasn’t sure how to address. He says the Sheriff’s Department advised him that as long as activities were private, not public, he could proceed.
Covert Canyon began offering training to various military and governmental groups from homeland Security and the Marines to local police departments.
The Williams’ appeal contends that their view shifted from watching wildlife drinking at ponds to seeing “dozens of men in camouflage fatigues milling about Covert Canyon day in and day out” shooting “handguns, shotguns, assault rifles and 50 calber long guns that look like something straight out of the movie Rambo…The sound of each shot richochets around the basin. Sometimes a dozen people shoot at the same time, and it sounds like the finale of a fireworks show.”
But after neighbors complained, the County shut down commercial shooting operations. “I could shoot here every day with as many people as I want, no permits. But if I charge people, then I need to go through hoops,” he says.
In 2007, Halcon submitted a formal proposal that included an urban warfare training house, helipad, training tower and simulated ship training structure, among other things.
In recent years, Halcon says he has allowed military and governmental groups to train free at the site to avoid triggering a commercial activities violation, also letting private groups such as hunters and a church group use the site for target shooting. He contends that some noise complaints resulted from shooting at the Lemon Grove Rod and Gun Club a few miles away that people mistook for shots fired at his range.
For eight years the Covert Canyon major use proposal languished, until the Planning Director issued the interim approval in late 2015 for outdoor firearms training, but not the more extensive training structures or activities initially sought.
Why Covert Canyon?
Opponents say the backcountry is the wrong place for intensive firearms training. But Halcon says, This facility has things you don’t get elsewhere.”
Those include a 700-yard-long range as well as a range with 180 degrees for shooting (photo, left). Local law enforcement, such as El Cajon Police, need training on rifles that they can’t get at their indoor range.
Covert Canyon also offers high-angle shooting from atop a rocky hill (photo, right), where Halcon says security agents assigned to protect the Pope on his recent U.S. visit came to train. Covert Canyon also has paramedics, trauma kids, and an armor to repair guns.
The region has repeatedly been scorched by major wildfires including the 1973 Laguna Fire, the 2007 Harris Fire and the 2006 Horse Fire that burned in the vicinity of Covert Canyon.
Fire safety was a key reason behind the County never approving a major use permit for the site. Concerns included the fact that the site has only one access road, which the county contended was too steep and narrow for a fire truck to access.
But Halcon counter s that when the road was first built on Forest Service land, “originally they said it was a fire road.”
Halcon hired his own consultant, Don Oates, a former fire chief in Santa Barbara and ex-fire chief for the State of California, who concluded the road could be utilized for fire service access. “He went and talked to Cal Fire,” says Halcon, who notes that “several fire trucks did come up here during the Horse Fire” also using water from ponds on site to fight the fire.
Under the stipulated agreement, Halcon says he has agreed to pay for widening the access road, trimming back brush and filling in ruts, even though the road is not on his land. He says that will benefit the Williams as well. “I live here. I don’t want this to burn down,” he says. He has also invested in a large water tank and plans to shelter in place if necessary.
Halcon says opponents have argued that six fires were caused recently by shooting in the backcountry. “None of those were at shooting ranges,” he observes. (That's true. The fires were in brushy areas, some involving illegal exploding targets, as ECM has previously reported.)
According to Halcon, his facility does not use exploding ammunition or tracers, but does allow diversionary devices that explode without fire, only compressed air. He says he will refrain in the future from allowing any shooting during red flag warnings.
He showed us areas where he has trimmed up trees to remove low-hanging branches and says he has agreed to clear 300 feet around buildings –farther than the 100 that is mandated. “We’ve gone above and beyond what is required.”
But Gonzalez, attorney for the appellants, fires back: “ Mr. Halcon’s work on the road to date has been without appropriate approvals, including environmental review. His `brush clearing’ is better described as ‘unauthorized habitat clearing.’ The problems with the access include (a) no second point of ingress/egress; (b) too steep; and (c) too long for a dead-end road. None of these problems can be fixed by smoothing out the road. An estimate of improvements that would make the road passable is approximately $800,000, not counting environmental review and permitting. When Halcon’s ready to spend that kind of money, only then will the fire safety access issue be credibly on the table.”
But Halcon notes that a county flyover of the Williams’ property in the past revealed what amounted to an “illegal junkyard” that they were cited for it. (See photos) “I lost count after they took out 67 vehicles,” he says, adding that gasoline and propane tanks also clutter the property.
The Williams did some cleanup but now Halcon contends, “It’s back to where it was.” On our visit, we observed considerable clutter at the Williams site, but could not confirm how much may be flammable.
As for the concerns over junk on the Wiliams’ propery, Gonzalez responds, “The County has inspected the Williams’ property in the past and found no problems. The fact that Halcon is trying to make permitting of his facility instead about conditions on a neighbor’s property that has exited just fine for decades is telling. This isn’t about the Williamses’ property, it’s about Halcon’s.”
Halcon claims, We’ve had two fires. One was caused by the Williams burning trash and was cited by a fire authority. The second was Williams dumping ashes on hay.” He adds, “The fire hazard quite frankly is next door.”
Asked about the two fires, Gonzalez told East County Magazine, that assertion is “patently false.” Halcon then sent photos showing a fire on the Wliliams property that had apparently spread into the brush.
The appeal contends that berms at the site’s three shooting ranges were built by dredging wetlands. Halcon has admitted to grading without a permit but says the soil came from a spring blocked by the property’s prior owner and that his action actually restored the spring.
The appeal claims Halcon illegally encroached onto Cleveland National Forest land by building a berm at the end of a shooting range. Gonzalez provided Google earth photos as evidence, taken in December 2005 and August2006:
But Halcon says the photos show that the airstrip built by the prior owner, a pilot, already encroached into the forest. He says he built the berm atop the area already cleared as an airstrip, believing it was his land. After hiring an engineer to survey the site, he learned it was actually federal forest land and complied with a requirement to remove the berm. He says he had to replant with native vegetation twic e- first using seeds from the county, then learning he had to plant a seeds required by the Forest Service.
The appeal claims Halcon diverted water illegally to flood part of the easement. Opponents have accused him of damming up streams, though no dams were visible when we visited, or draining ponds. He denies doing so, and notes drought conditions. Documents provided to the county show images of full ponds with blue water, unlike the small, muddy ponds and some dry holes today, though it is unclear how much of the change may be due to severe drought conditions.
“We’ve done a lot to bring back the habitat and wildlife,” Halcon says, adding, “At night you almost have to have a helmet on due to all the owls flying around.” He says he has seen coyotes, foxes and a mountain lion on the property.
The appeal claims buildings were erected without permits. Halcon says all buildings were there when he bought the site and that he is bringing them up to building codes. County documents show that plans include use of fire resistant materials.
Contentious relations with neighbors
To describe the relationship between the Williams and Halcon as contentious would be putting it mildly.
The appeal states, “Halcon pepper sprays Clark sitting in his car one night and claims it was self-defense. He poisons their dog, and cuts their utility lines. Halcon’s ranch hand decides to mock up a couple of pumpkins as Robin and Clark at Halloween and puts bullets in for the eyes as he sets this on fence posts where Robin and Clark will see them on the way to work each morning.”
Halcon tells a very different story.
He admits to pepper spraying Clark Williams, but says two women on his property for a filming at night complained of a man shining a flashlight in their eyes and taking photos. Halcon says he drove down to investigate and told Clark to stop taking photos. “He pushed the camera into my face and struck me with the camera. I pepper sprayed him,” Halcon says. He adds that he called law enforcement. Halcon says Williams sought a restraining order against Halcon, but that the judge denied it, stating Halcon had a right to defend himself.
Halcon adds, “Now we have a restraining order against him for attacking one of our employees. That’s on video.” He says Williams was blocking an easement in the road and was asked to move. Williams then tried to claim that tools belonging to an employee, Gar Orr, were his. “Mr. Williams grabbed Gary by the neck and started choking him violently,” he says. After another worker broker up the scuffle, the Sheriff was called and Orr obtained a one-year restraining order against Williams; according to Halcon that was extended to three years after Williams violated the order. “The judge told him you also have to pay Mr. Orr $6,000 but they are refusing to pay him,” Halcon contends.
Gonzalez counters that a criminal action is being pursued against a ranch hand for allegedly “stealing Mr. Williams’ camera.”
Halcon admits that another employee did carve pumpkins to resemble Clark and Robin Williams. “He did to that, a carictature, but he did not to that at my request, he did that on his own. He was reprimanded and they (the pumpkins) were taken down,” Halcon states.
Halcon flatly denies poisoning a dog, adding, “They are making an accusation and they sure as hell better be able to prove that in court. You know that I’m a patient person, but I refuse to be slandered.”
The Williams have also had an extended dispute with Halcon over a gate placed at the top of the access road to the property, which mediation has thus far failed to resolve. At various times they have claimed they were locked out of access to their property by locks that were changed or a chain wrapped too tightly for Robin to open. Halcon says he has offered to put in an electronic lock and made other offers in mediation that were rejected by the Williams, who want the gate removed.
As for providing electricity to the Williams, who have lived at their site for many years with no electricity, Halcon says they want SDG&E to run an electrical line over his property to provide electricity for them, but he has refused because he does not want an electrical line over the air strip. Putting a line underground would raise environmental issues, he contends.
Squeals over pigs
In the past, the county shut down operations at the site that included training for military medics involving shooting live pigs. Halcon says moving forward, he believes the stipulated order would allow such activities to resume, provided no other shooting was going on at the property at the time. The pig shootings drew outcries at the time from animal rights groups. Halcon told ECM that the pigs were anesthetized prior to being shot, a point not noted in media reports at the time. Resumption of that activity could elicit squeals from animal rights advocates, though supporters contend the military medics need practice treating battlefield-type wounds and that pigs most closely replicate humans.
Abuse of authority allegations
The appeal contends that for several years, the county has taken he position that commercial firearms training alone would trigger the county zoning ordinance section 1350 “Major Impact Services and Utilities” use, thus a major use permit is required. (This provision was adopted in 2010 in response to Blackwater seeking to set up paramilitary operations in rural Potrero.) Appellants contend that the Planning Director abused power in issuing approval unilaterally, without a vote of the Planning Commission or a public hearing, nor any environmental review.
“The approval of interim Law Enforcement Services activities at Covert Canyon pending application for and decision on a future discretionary permit, absent CEQA, is an abuse of discretion,” the appeal contends, arguing that the county lacks power to issue the stipulated order allowing the firearms training without conducting CEQA review.
The Planning Director based his decision on the scaled-back uses for the site after Halcon withdrew more expansive plans for a warfare training center and other facilities. His decision concluded that the firearms training meets the county zoning ordinance definition for law enforcement facilities, those the code makes no mention of firing ranges, indoor or outdoor. The appeal concludes that given the applicant’s record of violations “No court will support the County’s willingness to bend over backwards for the applicant, certainly not on the existing record.”
Appellants also argue that Williamson Act protections for agricultural and related open space should preclude firearms training. The Williamson Act gives property owners lower taxes for activities such as growing crops and keeping livestock, also allowing certain recreational uses such as hiking, fishing and hunting.
The staff report concludes that the appeal is “limited to evaluating the Director’s decision to classify the use of Covert Canyon as within the Law Enforcement Services use type.” Nothing else should be subject to the Administrative Appeal process, according to staff. The Director proposed the reclassification after Covert Canyon eliminated requests for tactical structures, a helipad, and agreed to limit training to firearms only.
The Director relied on the Law Enforcement Services provision in Zoning Ordinance Section 1346 which defines law enforcement services as “the provision of police protection by a governmental agency, including (but not exclusively) administrative offices, storage of equipment and the open or enclosed parking of patrol vehicles.” The Director reasons that firearms training, certification and reauthorization fall under the “police protection” provision by a governmental agency.
But for neighbors and environmentalists, the idea of reclassifying agricultural land to allow firearms training seven days a week is unacceptable--particularly when that land is surrounded on all sides by protected federal forests.
Gonzalez told ECM, “There is no sound mitigation that would significantly diminish the impact of the shooting.”As far as his clients are concerned, the only solution is “moving the use to an appropriate industrially zoned property," he maintains.
That’s exactly what Blackwater did after encountering mounting opposition to its plans for Potrero. The company withdrew its project and opened a shooting range/training facility next to a prison in Otay Mesa instead. That's after the Harris Fire scorched the property that a Blackwater vice president insisted only hours earlier would not burn.
Halcon, for the record, says if the county stipulated agreement stands, he won't be training any Blackwater or other private military contractors or mercenaries. "I had a call from one today," he told ECM, "and I turned them down."
But with major environmental groups with a history of often successful litigation now threatening legal action, it may ultimately be the courts, not county officials, that will have the final say.